The summer festival season is well and truly underway. This weekend sees the turn of Latitude Festival in Suffolk, one of the biggest of the year. It is also regarded as one of the safest with just 19 thefts reported in 2013. This hasn’t always been the case though. In 2010 Latitude hit the headlines for all of the wrong reasons when two rapes were reported including one gang rape. Women talked of being afraid of going out alone at night.
The turnaround in reputation has been in part due to an atheist police officer and a bunch of local Christians – including some from my own church. This is how it happened.
In 2005 the churches in Ipswich decided to form a Town Pastors scheme following the lines of the highly successful Street Pastors that had begun operating in other towns and cities around the country. These schemes involve Christians voluntarily patrolling the streets at night, helping and caring for people in practical ways. While this is happening groups will be simultaneously praying for the success of the work.
The impact of Street Pastors and other similar Christian groups under different names has been phenomenal. This work has won widespread approval and support from police forces and politicians. Significant reductions in crime figures have been repeatedly reported in areas where the Street Pastors initiatives have been operating, which have been confirmed by official police figures.
When the Ipswich Town Pastors organisers initially approached the local police force they were allocated a sergeant, Neil Boast to work with them. He was doubtful at first about the benefits and value of such an initiative and as an atheist had little interest in the prayer aspect. This is his own account:
‘It all started when I met Liz [the Town Pastors Co-ordinator] at a meeting. The meeting was promoting the idea that prayer could reduce crime.
‘I was ‘sent’ by my bosses and was reluctant to say the least to attend. I was very cynical and sceptical and almost ‘anti’. I was determined to be controversial and introduced myself as “Sergeant Boast from Ipswich Police Station, and I don’t believe in God”. One of the attendees piped up “You Will”, and everyone, including me, laughed. Christians, I have since found out, have a great sense of humour.’
As the scheme progressed crime numbers began to fall in Ipswich. Sexual assaults went down by 70% (compared to the previous year) during the first Christmas when the Town Pastors patrolled. Over the following years Town Pastors began operating in other local towns around Suffolk with similar levels of impact. Again in Neil’s words:
‘It’s probably the best thing I’ve achieved in my police service. My attitudes towards religion and Christianity have changed from negative to positive as a result of my continued work with the Town Pastors. I think that lots of officers were sceptical at first but the Police have statistical evidence to prove the Town Pastors have helped reduce crime.
‘I have found myself thinking far more about religion and faith and examining my own beliefs and morals. Sadly I’m not a Christian, but, I’d class myself, like a lot of the people who are helped each weekend by the Pastors, as, CONFUSED!’
(Neil’s full story can be found here)
In 2010 after the rapes at Latitude, Neil Boast was sent to speak to the festival organisers about the following year’s festival. They were threatened with the need for a large police presence, which would come at a considerable cost to them. This did not go down well, but as an alternative the organisers were told they could receive a group of Town Pastors from the Suffolk Churches to patrol the festival and be a presence. They reluctantly accepted.
So in 2011 a group of Town Pastors including some of my friends went to work as volunteers at Latitude. They were tolerated and only given a limited area in which they could work. Things quickly changed once they began their work. By the end of the four days they had made their mark and won over the management. Despite another rape incident between two people who knew each other Melvin Benn, the managing director spoke to the press saying, “I am happy with town pastors that have come to the area and been talking to festival goers. We have provided a great, secure festival.”
The following year the Town Pastors now known as Festival Pastors were able to become more involved, covering a larger part of the site. Crime continued to fall and there have been no more sexual attacks since the 2011.
In 2013 the work of the Festival Pastors at Latitude had developed such an impressive reputation that organisers from other festivals came to visit to see them in action. Teams from Street Angels and Street Pastors who had been operating at Leeds and Reading festivals came to observe and learn. As a result the Festival Pastors sent some of their members to support the Christian groups at both festivals and make more permanent bonds under the Festival Pastors name.
Thanks to the respect they have gained, this year there is a Sunday morning service at Latitude for the first time. Neil Boast is now retired and still a confused atheist. Earlier this year he was awarded an MBE, which was in part for his work with the Town and Festival Pastors.
Prayer and practical action can make big differences in tangible ways and so often when those who are willing to work with Christians see what is happening, they are won over. God’s work is good and gracious and when those from outside of the Church see what is happening, so often they are won over. When they embrace it, great things beyond expectation can happen and everyone benefits – even confused atheists